AUBURN, Ala. — The last time Auburn played Arkansas, Sean White grew up as a quarterback.
With less than a minute left in regulation, White led Auburn’s offense on a scoring drive that sent the game into overtime. The then-freshman completed a pair of 20-plus-yard passes and got the Tigers into field goal range, overcoming a lack of timeouts and a holding call that included a 10-second runoff.
“He hits two big passes to get us in range to kick the field goal,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee recalled. “And then, in overtime, we score a little bit. So that was kind of, I think, when he grew up in pressure situations. That’s when you knew the moment’s not going to be too big for us.”
Unfortunately for White, the progress he made against Arkansas would soon be stalled by a partially torn knee ligament. After the injury, which he suffered late in a four-overtime loss to the Razorbacks, he completed 21 of his 46 passes for the rest of the season and missed three games.
Those subpar numbers pale in comparison to the ones White has put up so far in 2016.
White leads the SEC in completion percentage (69.7), quarterback rating (157.20) and yards per attempt (9.0). He also ranks in the Top 11 among qualified FBS passers in all three of those statistics.
Season Passer Rating: #SEC
Sean White 157.2
Austin Allen 156
Chad Kelly 152.4
Jalen Hurts 142.2
Danny Etling 137.4
Drew Lock 136
— SEC Country (@SECcountry) October 18, 2016
The sophomore finally is getting his chance to build on the spark he provided Auburn in its late comeback against Arkansas last October. He’s healthy. He’s locked in as the No. 1 quarterback. And he’s on a roll.
“We’re starting to click as an offense,” White said after Auburn’s most recent win, 38-14 at Mississippi State. “I just have confidence that, when coach calls a play, we’re going to execute it and make it work.”
White’s teammates have confidence, too. They saw what he was capable of doing in Auburn’s offense in last year’s road win against Kentucky and the heartbreaking loss in Arkansas. So his sophomore surge comes as no surprise.
“Sean was on a roll that game (against Arkansas),” senior wide receiver Tony Stevens said this week. “He had a big game in the Kentucky game, too … Sean White just has awesome game. He’s just awesome.”
On the sidelines in Fayetteville during that marathon loss, White’s head coach saw an important attribute in White — the determination to hang in the pocket and keep delivering, even through a knee injury.
“We were still learning about Sean at the time, and we learned a lot about him that day — the way he handled pressure, the way he handled getting hit,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday. “He showed a lot of toughness in that game, and I think he responded very well.”
That attribute had to stand out for White early in his sophomore season as well. Through the first three games of the season — when the Tigers went 1-2 and had several quarterback changes in the losses — Auburn’s offense recorded the most negative plays of any team in the FBS.
But through the high number of sacks and the questions of John Franklin III possibly taking his starting job after an explosive cameo at the end of the Texas A&M game, White’s determination never wavered.
“I mean, Sean never quit,” senior left guard Alex Kozan said. “Sean will play to the final whistle, and he’s a gamer for sure.”
Now, during a winning streak that has included some of the most efficient passing performances Auburn has seen since Cam Newton’s 2010 Heisman Trophy campaign, White looks like a more polished version of the freshman quarterback who led the Tigers on that late game-tying drive in Fayetteville last fall.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema on Auburn QB Sean White: "He is the key to the change."
— Brandon Marcello (@bmarcello) October 17, 2016
He has completed 47-of-61 passes in his last three games for 677 yards, 3 touchdowns and an interception that started as a perfectly placed pass to a wide-open receiver who couldn’t hang onto it.
White will get his second chance at Arkansas as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country instead of an inexperienced freshman making his second career road start.
“He’s a year older now, (and has) been through a lot more situations,” Malzahn said. “He’s in a really good spot right now.”